So help me God: Faith and the American presidency

No matter the beliefs of the commander-in-chief, a historian finds faith often plays an important role in the Oval Office.

When President Dwight Eisenhower laid the cornerstone of the National Council of Churches building in New York in 1958, David L. Holmes stood in the crowd of 30,000 that gathered for the event. “I recall that most of the Columbia graduate students who were with me were non-religious to the core, and they made constant negative comments about both Eisenhower and the design of the building,” he says. “There’s not much argument about whether they were right about the second matter.”

In the fall of 1960 Holmes watched the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in a working class bar in Pittsburgh. He sensed the electricity running through the crowd as the young Catholic senator appeared to best Vice President Nixon.

Half a century later Holmes would scrutinize the faith lives of Kennedy, Eisenhower, and the 10 other U.S. presidents who have served since World War II, asking what their beliefs have meant for the presidency and for the nation.

“What would Jesus Christ have preached if he had taken a poll in the land of Israel?” thundered Harry Truman. Richard Nixon once charged that the Quakers—his own church—were “friendly with the Commies.” George W. Bush proclaimed that Christ was his favorite political philosopher. And one in six Americans still think that Barack Obama—the only president of the 10 to become a Christian in adulthood—is a Muslim. Holmes can thank our chief executives for an abundance of good material.


What role is religion playing in the current presidential campaign?

It’s less important than I thought it would be. At first it looked like Mitt Romney’s membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be a major issue, but we’re far enough into the campaign now to see that it’s not going to be.

I thought Barack Obama’s lack of consistent church attendance might become an issue, too, but no. Traditional values and social values are important, and they spring out of religion, but not religious affiliation itself.

Did you think Americans would embrace a Mormon candidate?

Initially it appeared there could be major problems with evangelicals. Not, I think, with Roman Catholics. But the evangelical opposition has been muted.

The American people have a comme ci comme ça view of Christology and many church teachings. Issues could have been raised about certain Mormon beliefs, such as the Second Coming occurring in Independence, Missouri, that humans had an existence before this one, that God has a body, and others.


Having a president with such views might embarrass a certain portion of the American public. But it looks like Romney is going to get a pass on those. And there’s nothing threatening about Mormon worship, which resembles 19th century evangelical Protestantism.

What do you make of the fact that we now have our first election with no white Protestants running either for president or vice president?

I taught a freshman seminar a dozen years ago called “The Decline of Protestantism in America” because I actually have lived long enough to have watched it happen. When I grew up, Protestants were in charge. We all know the statistics on the faiths of Supreme Court justices, but also all the Ivy League college presidents were Protestants. The Episcopal Church was the church.

But once the U.S. got equal opportunity and we aimed for a meritocracy, things changed. Evangelical Protestants have surged, of course, but mainline Protestants are very much out of the limelight. 

Some say that President Obama’s current lack of commitment to one church reflects the reality that Americans are more likely to identify themselves through their individual beliefs than through church membership.


I don’t really think that’s accurate for several reasons. Churchgoing is a habit, and those of us raised to go to church weekly tend to go with greater frequency in later years than those who were not.

Obama was not raised in a churchgoing tradition. He was 27 when he first heard Jeremiah Wright preach. He had been reading the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr before that, and he was impressed by the black clergy on the south side of Chicago. But he had no tradition of his own.

As president he has attended African American churches as well as the Episcopal St. John’s in Lafayette Square. I think he really wanted to belong to an African American church, but the African American churches in Washington have rolled out the red carpet too much for him.

What do you mean?

Obama, like virtually every president, does not want to become the focus of the service or disrupt things for everyone. Yet the African American churches often will center much of the service around the Obamas and speak directly to them.


A supposedly unplanned visit to a church leaks out, and people are lining up before 4 a.m. in their Sunday best.

 Obama is like Harry Truman, who told his pastor, “I don’t want people to come to church to see the president. They ought to go there to worship God.”


It’s to Obama’s credit that he feels that way. But I still think that his lack of regular churchgoing has contributed to the fact that, last I checked, about 17 percent of the American public think that our president is secretly a Muslim, more now than when he was elected.

Are presidents expected to assume almost a priestly role at times?

You might call it civil religion, yes. At a time of national mourning or national celebration, we need a chief spiritual spokesperson in a nondenominational way. The president serves that role.


Eisenhower took that very seriously. He even gave the inauguration speech at the dedication of the National Council of Churches building in New York in 1958. I was in the audience. Can you imagine a president doing that today?

Before becoming president, Eisenhower, despite having a strong faith, hadn’t attended church much. He did come from a strongly religious home: His mother was a Jehovah’s Witness,  and one might call his father a mystic.

Before Eisenhower’s run for president, Henry Luce, publisher of Time magazine, and his wife, the writer Clare Boothe Luce, told him that if he became a member of a church, he would serve as a role model for the nation’s young people. After that, he saw himself as leading a religious revival. Give the man credit: He even tried to take Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev to church with him.

He approved the addition of “In God We Trust” to our paper currency and Congress’ addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and he started the Capitol Hill Prayer Breakfasts—all things we now take for granted.


Did some presidents see being president as a kind of religious vocation?

Certainly George W. Bush thought he was doing God’s work and fulfilling an appointed mission. I think there was more of that in Lyndon Johnson than we know. His concern for civil rights was a calling. And he certainly embraced the faith and churchgoing more after he became president. He often attended more than one church on Sunday.

Gerald Ford, who was a committed middle-class Episcopalian, saw his role as a healer, coming in after the Watergate debacle. And Jimmy Carter certainly saw being president as a religious calling. Also Ronald Reagan, because he was “as close to being a minister’s kid as one can be without actually moving into the rectory,” as one biographer said.

As for Bill Clinton? Maybe on Sunday morning. One of his associates contrasted the pious, principled, “Sunday-morning President Clinton” with “Saturday-night Bill,” who became all too familiar to us.

I’d also have to include Harry Truman, who felt that he was bringing social justice and good judgment to the United States, and, to the best of his ability, was personifying the Golden Rule.

Didn’t Truman come under fire from certain religious leaders for dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Yes, the influential Federal Council of Churches, a Protestant organization representing some 30 denominations, wired him that its membership was deeply disturbed. Truman saw the decision as saving lives on both sides, because there was every indication the Japanese would resist to the very end. He had an estimate that we would lose as many or more troops invading the islands as we had up to that point in the war.

He felt he had done the ethical thing, but he was very bothered when he learned that the casualties were higher than had been predicted. He stopped after the second bomb and told the military that no more nuclear weapons could be used without his firm approval. He didn’t want to kill any more children.

Were other presidents ever called on the carpet by faith figures?

During the Vietnam War, Lyndon Johnson went with his wife to the historic Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. The preacher turned to Johnson and spent his sermon critiquing Johnson’s policies on the war. Afterward Johnson said not a word to him. Lady Bird, the polite Southerner, said, “Lovely choir.”

This event received a huge amount of attention in the news, and many approved of the minister’s questioning of LBJ. What many didn’t know, though, was that the minister was actually criticizing LBJ from the right. He wanted more bombing, more aggressive policies.  


Jimmy Carter, who received something like 80 percent of the evangelical vote in 1976, was visited in 1979 in the White House by the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who told him, “We are praying, Mr. President, that you will abandon secular humanism as your religion.” This was during the rise of the religious right; the Southern Baptists had shifted to a strong pro-life position.  

Later the Southern Baptists held a vote to disfellowship Bill Clinton’s home church in Little Rock, Arkansas because the church had failed to publicly reprimand him. The effort failed, but narrowly.

Richard Nixon avoided all this by arranging his own services in the East Room, with handpicked ministers who got calls in advance asking what they were going to preach about.

What should the relationship between presidents and faith leaders be?

Clergy should be prophets to presidents, not simply rubber stampers. This is the problem many people had with Billy Graham. He seemed to rubber stamp the presidents.

On the other hand, Graham must also have come across as a genuinely pastoral, decent, caring guy. Except for Truman and Kennedy, a wide variety of presidents—completely different in religious background and education, from the Greenwich Connecticut patrician George H. W. Bush to Bill Clinton—considered Billy Graham a close family friend. Even Eisenhower liked him, and generals usually don’t tolerate fools.

How do you see recent Catholic candidates since Kennedy—such as John Kerry, Joe Biden, and Paul Ryan—juggling their Catholicism and their political careers?

Despite their differences, all have a loyalty to the Catholic tradition and have stayed Catholic. Leaving the church can be done now without much fear of political repercussion. Tim Pawlenty is an ex-Roman Catholic, Sarah Palin is an ex-Roman Catholic, and so on. Nobody brings that up anymore. In the past you might not attend Mass, but you didn’t leave the faith. These men have all kept to that standard.

John Kerry made what was to some an unpersuasive comment that he always carried his rosary with him on trips. People just didn’t quite believe that.

It was said that John F. Kennedy, like his father, treated the bishops and their authority the same way he treated Democratic bosses and their authority. They were to be listened to but ignored if necessary, and used for your own benefit.


Accounts of Kennedy’s Catholicism go from one extreme to the other. How do you sort them out?

With his election Catholics felt that at last they were being accepted. They thought Kennedy was a product of Catholic schools, which wasn’t true. But they saw him as one of their own. I was in a working-class bar in Pittsburgh at the time of the first televised Kennedy-Nixon debate, and I can remember a great thrill went through the crowd when Kennedy not only held his own, but seemed to win.

A number of people indulged in wishful thinking about Kennedy’s Catholicism. Boston’s Cardinal Richard Cushing called him one of the great Catholic statesmen of our time. Now I know nothing about the cardinal, but this statement makes him sound like he’s living in a dream world. It’s like saying Bill Clinton is one of the most sexually moral men ever to hold the presidency. But at the time few of us knew about Kennedy’s sexual escapades, and he tended to inspire naïve wishful thinking. 

In 1960 Jackie Kennedy was quoted as saying, “I think it’s so unfair of people to be against Jack because he’s a Catholic. He’s such a poor Catholic.” And when someone suggested to JFK’s sister Eunice that a book be written about his Catholicism, she replied, “It will be an awfully slim volume.”

Yet he went to Mass regularly. During the Cuban missile crisis, he wrote a note to himself quoting Lincoln: “I know there is a God, and I see a storm coming.” He was offended when a campaign biographer wrote that he was “not deeply religious.”

Could you foresee a Muslim or a Jewish president?

I don’t see a Muslim president for a long time. I may be wrong. There are so many Jewish senators, governors, and CEOs that I think we will soon have Jewish candidates for the presidency. Joe Lieberman, in fact, sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. I think opposition will dwindle in the same way that it did for Romney and Mormonism.

Can you foresee a day when we could elect a nonbeliever?

I think if the person was known to be a man or a woman of character, then I don’t think it would matter.

The American public is agnostic about certain religious claims. After all, you can’t prove them. Reinhold Niebuhr said that the only provable theorem of Christian theology was original sin. You can’t prove the doctrine of the Trinity, you can’t prove the existence of God.

Americans are somewhat skeptical, but not about character. They want to know they’re in good hands.


If you could have dinner with three of these post-war presidents, living or dead, who would you choose?

I’d say Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. Truman strikes me as a highly intelligent, no-nonsense man of decency who always wanted to do the right thing.

An example: Truman had gotten his start in the machine of the corrupt Thomas J. Pendergast in Kansas City. Pendergast died a few days after Truman became Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president. His aides told him, “You can’t go to that funeral.” But he did. He said, this man gave me my start in politics, and he never asked anything of me—I’m not going to let him be buried alone.

What a way to introduce yourself to the American public. But Truman did not think in those terms. What you saw in Truman was what you got—a very intelligent, ethical, and biblically oriented man.

I think Eisenhower was probably a pretty good president, but he was past his prime by then. I’d love to talk to him about World War II. He was the right one for the job of supreme commander. No one could stand France’s General Charles de Gaulle, for example, but Eisenhower was able to handle him. Mostly I’d talk with him about the decisions he had to make. That war was filled with moral questions from start to finish.

Lyndon Johnson was a far more deeply flawed man, but a president who, many historians agree, could have been one of the great presidents of American history, if it hadn’t been for Vietnam. He would ultimately dominate the conversation, but it would be worth it.

This article appeared on the November 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 11, pages 12-15).

Read more from David L. Holmes on the lasting faith of childhood.

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